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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 9

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Current Releases

ADAM Arriving on the scene just in time to feast on (500) Days of Summer's sloppy seconds, Adam is another indie effort about a love affair that may or may not survive until the final reel. Here, it's Hugh Dancy as the dashing lad, unsure in the ways of love, and Rose Byrne as the pretty girl, more realistic about the world in which they live. The plot device is that Dancy's Adam suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a condition (comparable to autism, some claim) that impedes a person's ability to function in social situations. Thus, Adam learns from Byrne's Beth how to be more comfortable in his own skin, while Beth learns ... well, actually not much, unless you count Adam's lengthy discourses on astronomy. Dancy and Byrne are both appealing, but the rest of writer-director Max Mayer's film plays like a standard seriocomedy that never explores its unusual angle as fully as we might expect – or hope. **

THE COVE The newest entry in a growing subdivision of the nonfiction genre – the preaching-to-the-choir documentary – The Cove tracks the efforts of former dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry (who worked on the Flipper TV series in the 1960s) and the Ocean Preservation Society as they seek to halt the continued slaughter of dolphins in Japanese waters. The movie frequently veers off in several different directions (the exploitation of dolphins in U.S. theme parks like SeaWorld and the mercury levels found in dolphin meat are also addressed), and it too often lacks focus and sometimes even facts. But the scenes centering on the slaughter and the aftermath are horrifying; Michael Vick would doubtless get a hard-on watching them, but most normal people will be properly repulsed. ***

DISTRICT 9 District 9 is Independence Day for the art-house set. Although its press launch has been so deafening that it's managed to permeate the mainstream consciousness, its modest approach and meaty metaphors will curry greater favor with filmgoers who opt for Tsotsi over Transformers. And although it's already being hailed in many quarters as a model of originality, the truth of the matter is that the film follows genre conventions just as often as it heads off in its own direction. Like Independence Day, it treats the cinema of science fiction as its own buffet table, picking and choosing which ideas would best serve its own intentions. And in doing so, it comes up with a dish that's juicy in both execution and endgame. Back in 1981, an enormous alien craft appeared in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa; the voyagers, malnourished and stranded on a spaceship too damaged to go anywhere else, were rounded up and placed in a slum area known as District 9. Now it's been nearly three decades since their arrival, and the million-plus aliens, known dismissively as "prawns" because of their physical appearance, continue to wallow in filth and poverty, conditions that convince the South African government to move them further away from the city limits so as to minimize their contact with humans even more. The specter of apartheid is never far removed from the actions occurring throughout District 9, but writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell never turn this into a heavy-handed screed. Instead, they approach the issues of racism and xenophobia mindful of their knotty ramifications. Imagination runs a bit short toward the end, as District 9 largely turns into a standard chase thriller and viewers are asked to swallow a bit more than even their disbelief-suspending minds might accept. But in a nice twist from the standard Hollywood blockbuster, this Australian import employs its special effects to save the day rather than ruin it, using superb CGI wizardry to draw us into the final battles instead of relying on obvious fakery to distance us from the proceedings. ***

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him. Rather than spill the story in chronological order, this jumps back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones. Ultimately, none of this would work without the proper actors, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all. Don't miss the brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009. ***1/2

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